Preventing Catastrophe

Immunizing our civilization against catastrophic biological threats


Securely screening all DNA synthesis

The biotechnology revolution is fueled by our rapidly improving ability to read and write DNA. Advances in our ability to engineer living systems promise a healthier, more humane, and ecologically sustainable future.

Our challenge is to prevent the immense power of biotechnology from being misused. Historical pandemics killed tens of millions of people, and engineered agents could be even more destructive.

Thousands of people have the technical skills to build and release pandemic viruses, but only if they know what to make and can obtain a physical copy – for example, by assembling it from synthetic DNA.

Screening all DNA synthesis orders for hazards, without disclosing orders or what we're looking for, would enable a safer paradigm.

Our international team of academic life scientists, cryptographers, and policy analysts came together in 2019 to devise a system capable of secure and universal DNA synthesis screening suitable for stepwise or complete implementation. See our nascent project page for details.

The Nucleic Acid Observatory

Early warning of any and all biological threats

Containing a pandemic or invasive species becomes exponentially more difficult with time, underscoring the importance of early warning. We and many others have outlined a Nucleic Acid Observatory to monitor humanity and the environment for any and all biological threats. With collaborators in Massachusetts and New Zealand, we're developing methods to accurately challenge the sensitivity of metagenomic sequencing to known and unknown biological threats. For more details, see the preprint.

Bidirectional Contact Tracing

Finding and isolating more cases by searching backwards as well as forwards

Tracing contacts backwards and then forwards again can find more infected individuals, slowing or even containing a pandemic. Our models indicating its efficacy for SARS-CoV-2 and variants have been reportedly validated by a team in Belgium; similar approaches are being adopted elsewhere in the world.

Genetic Attribution

Responsibility is easier when our work is identifiable

Each of us has a design signature indicative of our work. Given sufficient data, that signature can be identified by machine learning, encouraging community recognition of ancestral designs and deterring misuse. We built a model that substantially improved upon prior efforts, after which members of our group organized a competition challenging others to do better. They did.

Receptor Decoys

Only a few dozen receptors are used by mammalian viruses, so a general-purpose method of making decoys with negligible endogenous interactions could enable us to develop therapies for all of them. We are focusing on avoiding side-effects by engineering away endogenous interactions.

Effective Security Policy

We are advising governments on pressing issues of biodefense. In particular, we seek to delay the identification of pandemic-capable viruses and other other catastrophic information hazards while developing effective defenses against future biological threats to civilization.

Few biosecurity analysts stay at the forefront of technology development, even fewer active researchers focus on security issues, and no others specialize in engineering things that can spread on their own. That makes us unusually well-positioned to understand the threatspace and identify effective defenses.

Ultra-Rapid Countermeasures

Allowing a single lab to evolve biomolecular countermeasures in days may be a key defense against certain catastrophic threats. We're currently adapting our PRANCE system to be capable of evolving binders and proteases specific to arbitrary biomolecules, including those that can't be expressed in bacteria.